A Chinese village wedding

A Chinese village wedding

Last week, I went to my first Chinese wedding in a village where no non-Chinese had ever set foot. My friend who invited me was the only person who spoke English.

I spent a good 5 or 6 hours trying to find suitable clothes in Beijing’s Xidan.  I almost didn’t go to the wedding after that, I couldn’t stop worrying about all the things I might do wrong, the customs I might break. As my Chinese friend wisely told me “Don’t worry about it. They know you’re a stupid foreigner!” Good point well made.

Usually English couples know each other for at least a couple of years before they decide to get married, but I am told in China relatives put more pressure on couples to marry quickly. This couple had known each other a year. The woman was a couple of years older than the man, which seems to be normal.
The last English wedding I went to was mostly suits and simple dresses. But at a Chinese wedding , bright colours are preferred, to wish happiness and new beginnings upon the newly-weds. Thanks, Uncle Internet. For girls, pink is recommended. I’ve not worn pink since I was ten years old.(http://chinesecommunity.org.nz/site/topics/show/391-dos-and-donts-when-attending-a-chinese-wedding) Most of the guests were people from the village and the men turned up in their farm clothes! And there I was the day before worrying about what colour skirt I should be wearing. I just loved the casual, friendly atmosphere even if I did feel a bit out of place.
Maybe a traditional English wedding begins with the relatives mingling outside, then they make their way into the venue and sit down quietly to wait for the bride. Then the groom watches the bride being led up the aisle by her father or brother.Mostly, Chinese weddings begin with the groom’s friends blocking the bride from entering the house! They went to great efforts to do this. Eight red cars and a big truck were parked in the road to stop her getting through, and the groom had to try to rescue her from the car before his friends got there. Traditionally the groom is the only one allowed to touch the bride until the wedding is over.

Eventually the car got close enough to the house that the bride could get out if she wanted to, but seven or eight of his friends held the groom back, making him fight to get out. Jeering, they hung a little bit of red cloth outside of her window and held the groom back, pretending they were going to open the door. They sprayed paint and foam all over the driver’s windscreen so he couldn’t see where he was going! If I hadn’t been warned about the 开玩笑 (kaiwanxiao: playing jokes),who knows how I would have felt! When he finally broke through he rushed her into the house, veil over her head, while his friends threw glitter and confetti all over the white wedding dress!

English weddings take place in hotels and maybe they have performers. The Chinese wedding was in the groom’s backyard and there was a brass band!  The hostess asked me to come up in front of everyone and give the bride and groom some flowers and my blessing (in Chinese): “白头偕老 早生贵子 (Baitou xielao zaosheng guizi)” . Literally it means ‘white hair, grow old, early born treasure’ and could be translated as “I hope you grow old together and have a beautiful baby”. During the ceremony the groom’s friends started setting off fireworks so no one could hear anything! Children ran over the stage.
Perhaps at an English wedding, the bride and groom will drink a glass of wine together to symbolise their unity. At the Chinese wedding, they drank juice! The bride helped the groom pour a glass of Coca-Cola (really!) into what seemed to be a ceremonial glass to show the longevity and prosperity their marriage would bring.
After the ceremony, the bride changed from her white wedding dress into more traditional red clothing and unwrapped small candies to give to all her close relations to thank them for coming. Her parents did not come to the wedding because the marriage would have been a sad occasion for them. Their daughter will move away from home to live with her new husband, so they stay at home to reflect.

Finally, there was the food. SO much food. The whole village had got together to make hundreds of these little meat and veg dumplings called 饺子 (jiaozi) and every house I went into wanted to give me dumplings. Seems like they didn’t know how to treat a foreigner aside from giving me food and smiling, but they all wanted me to eat in their house. After all, food is a universal language! I ate about twenty or thirty dumplings that day, along with steamed fish, roast chicken, roast pork, green vegetables, and two kinds of shrimp. I knew I had to eat a LOT to make them happy, but I didn’t digest those huge meals for three days because they had almost no fibre content! Really, really delicious though . The steamed fish was especially 好吃, and that home reared roast chicken…

WP_20141127_086Copyright: Grace Jackson

They showed me how they cooked the food on a big stove which was also used for warming the beds using steam circulation. The beds were about four metres long and maybe even two metres wide- my friend explained to me that the beds were built so big to accommodate seven or eight children in older times. She told me how they could only shower when it was sunny, because the water was heated by solar power, that water came from collected rainwater and there was no flushing toilet .I thought the whole village was extremely clever, and it was great to see some ancient inspired cooking methods. But there were many elements of modernity about the village as well. Every room had a place I could charge my phone, all the houses had a TV and many posters and photos were pasted on the bare walls. I saw her father’s small scale battery farm. Over 2000 chickens laying eggs, four to a cage, in a small brick building. The noise of those chickens was mournful, you could hear the moaning one hundred metres away. However, I understood that they needed to produce that many eggs to make a living, so it didn’t put me off my dinner!

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Copyright: Grace Jackson

Stray cats and dogs wandered around the bungalows (平房 pingfang) and through the hutongs. One time, a man brought about twenty sheep out of what seemed to be his backyard, and there were piles of sweetcorn everywhere. Small alleyways with tall gates separated houses, and people grew crops in their yards. My friend pointed out the good looking house across the fields, and explained that a member of the government lived there, overseeing crops and distributing plots of land to villagers. One house I went into was plastered with posters of President Xi JinPing and Mao Zedong. The farmers said they loved Xi Jinping because he had fought corruption among overseers, ensuring the farmers would get a fair deal for their produce. One guy’s second question to me was ‘习近平好不好’ Xi Jinping haobuhao (Xi Jinping: good or not?) I spoke a lot of Chinese and described England to my friend’s mum, who was very interested in what English people eat, and what English people wear. I drew a map to explain to her where Europe was.

Oddly, when I came back from such an environment, my Chinese level seemed to have improved considerably. Perhaps I have finally passed the first step to learn Mandarin! I would advise other learners to immerse yourself entirely in a language whenever you can in order to learn it.


Learning about Power

This post may have nothing to do with China. It may have everything to do with China. I write about something which has happened to me in the past that made me think a lot about power, and I guess I had to write it down.

At the beginning of this year, I was new to China, and I had no friends. I am a person who wants friends, so I did all I could to find them. Our building, where boys and girls, Chinese and international students live together, is a pioneer in China, but it is very small (130 people). To me all of them were potential friends, so for two months I said hi to everyone I met. No, I went further than that. I had a conversation with everyone I met indiscriminately. My friend said it was a nightmare to go for dinner with me, because I would talk to so many people on the way downstairs!

One day I was asked by the person in charge of the building to join a team who would organise activities for the rest of the residents over the year, and that was about when I realised that I had stood out to him, completely by accident. I began to notice that almost everyone I met would say ‘Hi, Grace’ to me and I wouldn’t know their names. But they knew mine. This was probably the first time in my life I had some power over a fair group of people. I could influence them. Was this my own quality, or was this the environment I lived in? I don’t know.

Anyway I know, as soon as I realised I had this power, something changed. Suddenly, I decided that absolutely EVERYONE in the building must know my name. That I must talk to EVERYBODY and make them feel interested in me.When others wanted to organise activities, I became controlling. If I found out things were going on in the building that I didn’t know about, I became paranoid. I am not a competitive person, and I don’t take charge without encouragement. But the knowledge that I had this power seemed to change me. There was a party which a girl and I were supposed to organise together, but actually she just did what I said. We planned the party and we bought the stuff together, but I publicised it and I decided what to buy. She planned some games to play at the party, but it never happened. For me, it wasn’t OUR party. Sixty people came. I had done that. Not ‘us’. Half of them were her friends.

Shortly after the party, I broke down (embarrassingly) in front of the guys opposite. I didn’t even know what I was upset about until I realised. I was lonely. I felt I didn’t have close friends, because I was so busy making everyone my friend. So, as easily as I had made a name for myself, I became invisible. I stopped saying hi and I stopped organising anything at all, and stepped away from the power I had once had, to look after myself instead.

What did I learn? That power is easily attainable . All you need is to make each individual feel special , that you care about them individually. That you become popular, and popularity is power. That I can fake it, and that I am good at it. That I don’t manage well with power, that it turns me into something I am not. I think those guys would follow me if I invested time to persuade them to. I would always be someone they remembered, but not someone they cared about. That is power.